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So, with my elementary readings in Shi’ite theology, specifically the Ithnā‘ashariyyah or the Twelver Shi'a branch, I couldn't differentiate between a Prophet and a Shi'ite Imam.

  • The Prophets are divinely appointed by Allah for a mission, so are the Imams.
  • The Prophets are divinely guided, so are the Imams.
  • The Prophets are infallible with respect to the religion, so are the Imams.
  • The Prophets are leader of the ummah and obedience to them is obligatory, so it is for the Imams.
  • The Prophets communicate with the angels, so do the Imams.
  • The Prophets performed miracles with the permission of Allah, so do the Imams.
  • The Prophets were revealed the things of the future by Allah, so it is for the Imams.
  • The Prophets have a higher rank/status compared to the average believer, so do the Imams.

What are the differences between them then? Please clarify the misconceptions if any.

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Hasan Ibn Abbas Marufi wrote a letter to Imam Reza a.s. (the 8th Imam) and asked this question. So Imam wrote in response:

عَلِيُّ بْنُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ عَنْ أَبِيهِ عَنْ إِسْمَاعِيلَ بْنِ مَرَّارٍ قَالَ كَتَبَ الْحَسَنُ بْنُ الْعَبَّاسِ الْمَعْرُوفِيُّ إِلَى الرِّضَا ع جُعِلْتُ فِدَاكَ أَخْبِرْنِي مَا الْفَرْقُ بَيْنَ الرَّسُولِ وَ النَّبِيِّ وَ الْإِمَامِ قَالَ فَكَتَبَ أَوْ قَالَ الْفَرْقُ بَيْنَ الرَّسُولِ وَ النَّبِيِّ وَ الْإِمَامِ أَنَّ الرَّسُولَ الَّذِي يُنْزَلُ عَلَيْهِ جَبْرَئِيلُ فَيَرَاهُ وَ يَسْمَعُ كَلَامَهُ وَ يُنْزَلُ عَلَيْهِ الْوَحْيُ وَ رُبَّمَا رَأَى فِي مَنَامِهِ نَحْوَ رُؤْيَا إِبْرَاهِيمَ ع وَ النَّبِيُّ رُبَّمَا سَمِعَ الْكَلَامَ وَ رُبَّمَا رَأَى الشَّخْصَ وَ لَمْ يَسْمَعْ وَ الْإِمَامُ هُوَ الَّذِي يَسْمَعُ الْكَلَامَ وَ لَا يَرَى الشَّخْصَ Reference: الكافي ج 1، ص176،باب الفرق بين الرسول و النبي و المحدث

According to this hadith and also other references some differences of prophet and Imam are:

  1. Imam does not have The Tashree' authority (i.e. legislation or bringing a new religion making rules of religion) but prophet have. Imam only protects the religion of prophet from going astray but does not have the right to make any change or new law in religion. prophet transfers all the divine knowledge of religion to next Imam (prophet is both Imam and prophet at the same rime like Quran says about Ibrahim a.s.) and so Imam has the perfect knowledge of religion. for example Imam can not change halal and haram.
  2. Prophet can see revelation angel Gabriel directly. but Imam does not see angel directly but the messages of God is inspire to him or Imam only hears angle (but not seeing)
  3. Prophet can see unseen universe directly but Imam learn about unseen from prophet.
  4. According to this verse rank of Imam is higher than prophet:

وَإِذِ ابْتَلَى إِبْرَ‌اهِيمَ رَ‌بُّهُ بِكَلِمَاتٍ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ قَالَ إِنِّي جَاعِلُكَ لِلنَّاسِ إِمَامًا قَالَ وَمِن ذُرِّ‌يَّتِي قَالَ لَا يَنَالُ عَهْدِي الظَّالِمِي

And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: "I will make thee an Imam to the Nations." He pleaded: "And also (Imams) from my offspring!" He answered: "But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers."

http://tanzil.net/#2:124

It can be understood that the rank of Imam is higher than prophet because prophet Ibrahim a.s. could become Imam after passing exams and it was at ends of his life because he asks "and from my children"? We know he did not have children until he was aged according to other verses.

Please note this does not mean the rank of 12 Imams of Shia like for example Imam Ali a.s. was higher than prophet because prophet Muhammad PBUH was prophet and Imam at the same time and his rank is higher than all 12 Imams.

  • 1
    If Imaam is higher than prophet, why in the kalima or shadah do you say "muhammad ur rasullAllah" .... shouldn't you say "muhammadur Imaam Allah" ? Isn't that giving a lower title to muhammad(pbuh)? – islam101 Sep 11 '12 at 22:46
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    @islam101 when one want to accept Islam should believe what prophet says is from God and not from himself. so the rasullAllah is more suitable for here. prophet has many titles and each is used where is more suitable. no reason exist always highest should be used. also the verse saying Ibrahim a.s. became Imam after passing exams is enough to prove Imam is higher than prophet. – Battle of Karbala Sep 12 '12 at 13:13
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    >I will make you the Imam to the nations ...... is certainly not refering to the Imam concerning the Imamah doctrine of Shia but it referes to leader, Abraham was made a leader among all nations as an intrinsic quality of prophethood itself – Islam Jan 23 '13 at 19:31
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Battle of Karbala's answer is great. There is an important difference he forgot to mention:

Jaber asked Imam Sadiq: Why don't you claim what belongs to you? (Why don't you take control of the Ummah, you're the rightful leaders?)

Imam Sadiq replied:

یا جابِر مَثَلُ الإِمامِ مَثَلُ الْکَعْبَةِ اِذْ یُؤتی وَلایَأْتی

Oh Jabir the position of the Imam (to his Ummah) is like the Ka'ba, the Ummah should circle him, not him (The Ummah should go to him, not the other way around)

Bihar al-Anwar Volume 35. Pg. 353

A prophet has a duty to walk around a guide people. The Imam's duty only becomes activated when enough people want him to be their leader. It's somewhat a democracy.

Even though Imam Ali was appointed by Allah he didn't oppose the other caliphes because people didn't want him.

For Imam Hussain the people sent letter for him to come and save them from Yazid son of Mu'awiah, letter they were threatened and decided not to back Imam Hussain. Then Imam Hussain was like well they don't want me anymore...let me go back to my own land... Yazid didn't even allow Imam Hussain returning to his homeland. Rest is history.

As you can see all other Imams, none of them had a governing role. They were simply there go guide whoever that comes to them.

(This is also a significant difference between Shia Imams and Sunni caliphes. For Sunnis basically anyone who's ruling is the caliphe. For Shias it's only who has divine authority.)

  • Imam Ali was the Imam but it took him 25 years to become the caliphe.
  • Imam Hassan was the Imam, but because Mua'wiyah gave money and land to the his followers he was left alone and had to come to peace with Mua'wiah.
  • Imam Hussain was the Imam, but was brutally martyred.
  • Imam Sajjad, Imam Baqir, Imam Sadiq were all Imams but just taught students about Islam which is why most Shia narrations are from them.
  • Imam Kazim was Imam, but was imprisoned for many years. There were many days that he didn't even see the sun. The chains had softened his bones. He was still guiding others through his mediums
  • Imam Reza was Imam, while he was positioned as Ma'mun's heir. During his time Ma'mun gathered many intellectual debates.
  • Imam Jawad was an Imam even though he became an Imam at the age of 7 or 9. He also had intellectual debates.
  • Imam Hadi and Imam Hassan al-Askar were on house arrest and distanced from people because the Abbasid government were controlling them and awaiting for the 12 Imam to be born. But still they were Imams. Only that they were communicating less frequently with their followers.
  • Imam Mahdi became the Imam at the age of 5. For a period of time he was being communicated through his four deputies. Then his great occultation began.

Through out this period of 250 years...other than Imam Ali's few years it never it came a moment were people showed great desire for their Imam to take over and therefor they were never the ruler. People were more like: " Yeah we want you to be our Imam...but don't ask us to do anything too difficult."

An incident that wraps the whole idea was that group of people came to Imam Ali and wanted to pledge allegiance to him. He said come back tomorrow with shaved heads. Only 3 people showed up. ... So Imam Ali decided not to make any action, because the people didn't want him.

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Imam is the custodian of Prophet, he may be regarded as representative of Prophet. In the absence/ any controversy, he has to explain true Islamic Jurisdiction, because he has got knowledge of Prophet, he has the knowledge, gifted by Prophet, whereas, Prophet has be bestowed all, including knowledge by Almighty Allah.

Allah has comprehensive programme for Hidayat (finding salvation), through Prophets and their representative. The representation of Prophet exits every time, until Qiyamat (judgement day).

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